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Review: Cory Doctorow’s Makers

Review: Cory Doctorow’s Makers

Those of us immersed in the maker scene can’t help but wonder how it will all play out. Will we, at some point, return to the bad ol’ days of the last few decades when the word ‘crafting’ was associated with grandmas, ‘making’ with middle-aged shop teachers, and the closest thing to DIY was figuring out how to program your VCR? Throw out instead of fix, borrow money to buy cheaply-made consumer junk? It was a dark time.

Most would agree that we’re not likely going back to that mindset, but the question remains: just where is the DIY movement headed? Cory Doctorow’s latest book, Makers, takes those musings and plays them out decades into the future. In his story, the traditional economy has cratered, and who steps up? That’s right, hardware hackers, DIYers, makers.

At the beginning of the story, corporate executive Landon Kettlewell holds a press conference plugging Kodacell, his quixotic merger of Kodak and Duracell. What possible reason could there be to combine two failed, bankrupt corporations? Kettlewell’s dream is to create a maker company that specializes in monetizing DIYer projects with loans and know-how. Say two people in a garage need fifty grand to turn an idea into a business. Kodacell supplies the capital and a business manager, in exchange for a cut of the profits.

At first, Kettlewell’s revolution — dubbed New Work in the book — seems destined for success and Kodacell even suffers the tribulations of an up-and-coming corporation: employee poaching, ripoff companies, that sort of thing. We’re introduced to Kettlewell’s star makers, Perry and Lester, eccentric tinkerers with a million ideas. Kettlewell convinces tech blogger Suzanne Church to travel to Florida to cover the duo and provides a business manager to monetize their ideas. The five of them form the bulk of the heroes in the book.

The New Work revolutionaries find themselves facing seemingly insuperable challenges like cowardly investors, trigger-happy cops, and the makers’ own lack of business savvy. They gamble on new projects, some of which pay off, while others tank. In one important plot element, Doctorow explores how open source technology plays out in the business sector.

I loved the main characters, particularly Perry, Lester, and Suzanne. I didn’t always agree with what they were doing or saying, and sometimes, I didn’t even like them all that much, but in many ways, that made for more compelling heroes than mere stereotypes.

There were villains, of course, foils for the noble hackers and bloggers populating the story. For instance: Freddy, a vindictive blogger, and Sammy, the hard-hustling Disney exec. Ultimately, the central conflict seems to be an internal one amongst the nerds: being driven to monetize their ideas by greedy suits and struggling to keep their self esteem, sense of ethics, and dignity intact as their efforts pay off.

Will the magic leave the maker movement? Will we see it co-opted by suits? Time and time again, we see Perry and Lester battling to keep their ethos from being perverted — they don’t care if they ever get rich, they just want to keep on making. In that sense, Makers is as much a cautionary tale as a speculation on what the future will bring.

If you want an imaginative and enjoyable exploration of the future of making, Makers is definitely worth the read.

Makers by Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0765312792

Note: True to his pro-Community Commons beliefs, Doctorow has made Makers available for free download on his site.

8 thoughts on “Review: Cory Doctorow’s Makers

  1. ForumDolu says:

    very nice

  2. Doubi says:

    “I found this review helpful”, that’s what I’d click.

    I’d been keeping Gareth’s blog entry from 30/10/2009 in my RSS inbox as a reminder of this book’s existence and that I should really check it out sooner or later.

    TBH this review has reassured me that I can probably let this particular book slip a few pegs down my priority read list… but, that in itself has constituted a useful service to me.

    Don’t know what your plans are for this feature, but reviewing a healthy mix of fiction and some ‘seminal works’ of factual instruction or reference on different tech topics would surely provide ample material for many posts to come. I look forward to them!

  3. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Thanks for the feedback. This column will be a regular feature on the site, and we’ll be reviewing any type of book, even a few magazines, that we think will be of interests to makers. John B will be our main columnist, but any of us will be able to commandeer the column banner when we have a book we want to review.

    If folks have suggestions for books, please let us know.

  4. Scott says:

    I very recently read this book, and I loved it. I think you are right about the characters being real (hence, sometimes not very likeable).

    What I especially enjoyed was how well balanced the exploration of the issues surrounding the New Work were. Incorporate or not, let the suits in or hold them at arms length, how to finance, to be mainstream or anarchist. There are a ton of great ideas to chew on in this book!

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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